The Morality of Lockdown

Whilst many people seem to believe that the only thing wrong with the UK Government’s response to Covid-19 was failure to implement the lockdown soon enough and rigorously enough, others are beginning to question whether the lockdown is justified at all.

The issue is inescapably a moral one: it is, after all, a question of taking action (or not) to save lives.

I have touched on moral issues before in The Categorical Imperative and in Alinsky for Insiders. The observations I make here are related, especially to the moral infantilism hypothesised in the latter.

Many decisions, both personal and political, involve moral dilemma. Guidance exists for how to go about addressing moral dilemmas. Leaving aside religious authority, the most well-known are,

  • The Golden Rule: Do as thou wouldst be done by.
  • Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
  • Utilitarian Morality (Bentham, Mill & others): Morally correct action should maximise net happiness and wellbeing integrated over the whole population.

The Golden Rule has little to tell us about lockdown as it relates more to one-on-one interpersonal behaviours. However, the Categorical Imperative is very relevant. The imposition of the lockdown is implicitly based on the assumption that the reduction in lives lost through C-19 trumps all other effects of the lockdown. The Categorical Imperative requires us to be able to raise this to a universal principle if the lockdown is truly a valid moral action. Thus, other forms of infringement of civil liberties which save lives must also be regarded as acceptable.

Consider deaths and injuries on the UK roads: around 1,800 deaths per year, 25,000 serious injuries and 160,000 lesser injuries. It is well established that deaths and serious injuries would be reduced to a small fraction of these figures if the speed limit were reduced to 25 mph everywhere at all times. Yet we implicitly believe this would be too great a restriction, both on our freedoms and perhaps on the economy. It seems we are reluctant to extend the “lockdown logic” to this case, so the lockdown would appear to fail the Categorical Imperative test.

Consider alcohol. There are around 6,600 deaths per year in the UK directly attributable to alcohol. In addition, a far larger number of people are adversely affected by other effects of alcohol abuse, including violence. The serious health consequences of tobacco smoking have been known for over half a century, but it has taken that long to implement the discouragements now in force, but tobacco remains legal and the Government continues to draw revenue from it. Again, it seems that we do not make saving lives at the cost of infringing civil liberties a universal law, rendering the morality of the lockdown invalid under the Categorical Imperative.

The Utilitarian perspective requires that we estimate all the consequences of lockdown, and judge its morality based on whether there is a net benefit or disbenefit across society as a whole. This is problematic. To carry out such a Utilitarian analysis it is necessary to estimate how many lives will be saved by lockdown. This may never be known, and certainly is not at present. Moreover, the effects of herd immunity may mean that lives saved now merely mean more lives lost later. And there is also the issue, not merely of counting bodies, but accounting for healthy years of life lost. In other words, to be more blunt about it, most people who are dying of C-19 are old and suffering one or more health problems, so the likely years of healthy life lost may be small. If this seems rather callous, note that this sort of cold-blooded calculation is explicit in “utility”.  There are other health benefits from the lockdown too. All infectious diseases have reduced incidence and consequently reduced death rates. Deaths and injuries on the roads must be far less also, as the roads are now very quiet.

The most worrying downside of the lockdown is its economic impact. I am not even going to attempt to gauge its effects, but authoritative bodies are predicting the deepest recession on record. The question will be – for how long? There must surely be some punitive Government action forthcoming to recoup their current largesse. But the direct effect on mortality may not be what you might expect. Whilst poverty is associated with shorter lifetimes, economic downturns in a developed country are associated, paradoxically, with reduced death rates (although suicides increase). However, death is not the only measure. Sustained, genuine poverty is misery and might become widespread if there is a long-lasting depression.

Applying the utilitarian method of moral analysis is thus fraught with imponderables. However, it is not my purpose to determine if the lockdown is moral or not. My purpose is the more limited one of pointing out that the decision was made without any attempt at moral analysis, or even the recognition that such a thing might be required – despite the decision being overtly a moral one!

And this is where the politics comes in. And the moral infantilism. And the role of moral usurpation in the exercise of political control.

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, probably the best of the spate of recent books on morality, has provided us with a valuable insight into the relationship between moral perspective and politics. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that a person’s moral orientation determines their political affiliation. A considerable body of empirical evidence led Haidt and his co-workers to devise a six-point system of moral values. The six moral values and their opposites are,

  • Care/harm
  • Liberty/oppression
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

The signatures of the political tribes are as follows. Firstly, those people who are wrongly labelled “liberal”, in the American sense, or, if you prefer, but equally wrongly, “progressive”, or perhaps (and again wrongly, in my opinion), “left wing”. Their moral characteristic is that they are very strongly polarised towards the “care” axis.

Secondly, libertarians are very strongly polarised onto the “liberty” axis, naturally.

The most significant finding is for conservatives, using this term to mean traditional or social conservatives (very little to do with the current Conservative Party in the UK, though still of relevance in the USA). The conservative moral signature is an equal balance across all six moral values. Only conservatives value the last three: loyalty, authority and sanctity.

A commonly accepted code of behaviour, what you might call a social morality, is essential for large scale human societies to function in comparative peace and cooperation. It is a mistake to imagine that the legislated law, together with the police and other forms of State controlled force, are what hold societies together in harmony. Recourse to legal sanctions are for serious, and hopefully relatively rare, infringements. The everyday world is governed by voluntary adherence to all those minor courtesies which constitute being civilised (or urbane, the etymology betrays their origins). But this social morality is mutable; it differs between cultures and changes over time. I have argued elsewhere (in Alinsky for Insiders) that this mutability of the social morality provides an extremely powerful mechanism for exercising control over the masses: moral usurpation. Moreover, since it is the moral sense itself which is manipulated, it avoids any appearance of hegemony. This is the way to control a democratic society.

One of the key features of moral usurpation is moral infantilism. This encourages an extreme simplicity of moral outlook. All moral issues take on the appearance of being quite certain, all issues are decided and moral dilemmas are avoided. The benefit to the adherent is minimising of cognitive load and a moral certainty which is then deployed as a weapon against those who have the temerity to demur, i.e., everyone who thinks some moral analysis might be required. Consequently, moral infantilism is actually anti-moral, analogous to Puritanism being opposed to true spirituality; both are more concerned with virtue signally than the harder business of true virtue.

What I would draw to your attention is that moral perspectives which have a strong polarisation onto just one of Haidt’s six moral values will be far easier to deploy in moral usurpation because they are easier to infantilise. Thus, by having all your moral eggs in the “care” basket you will be led to regard our lockdown as an obvious good with no further analysis being needed. This is why those who question the lockdown will invariably be people of the conservative or libertarian persuasions.

The conservative moral perspective, on the other hand, is harder to deploy in the service of moral usurpation because it is intrinsically harder to infantilise a perspective which operates in a six-dimensional moral space. Added to this, the defining feature of the conservative – being sceptical of change and valuing tradition – also makes it harder to manipulate and deploy in the service of moral usurpation.

Whether this lockdown was the right or wrong thing to do I don’t know. But what the adoption of lockdowns across most of Europe and the Anglosphere demonstrates is that a care-axis polarised morality, characteristic of the “faux liberal” mindset, is now dominant across the developed world. Whilst this conclusion will hardly amaze you, its significance lies in its implications for the exercise of moral usurpation across the whole political spectrum.  

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